Red Pill, Blue Pill

On a recent weekend,  I found myself occupying myself occupied with typical household chores. I tidied up the books and paper on the dining room table, made sure no dishes were in the sink, did laundry. It’s unusual that I find myself with no pressing tasks on a Saturday but this seems to be happening more frequently. My time is now unoccupied by gigs and rehearsals, or anything creative. Now it seems more free to contemplate recent events that have prompted me to reprioritize many aspects of my life that I took for granted.

First of all, I’m just coming out of a deep depression which I’ve cleverly hidden from everyone. As much as I wanted to curl up in a ball and hide from the world, I did have to function and be a responsible(ish) adult. I was in a band and I have a job taking care of other people, involving moment to moment decision-making and problem solving and being present mind and body. So I swallowed the blue pill and kept moving, safe in the illusion that it would all be fine. Most days it’s exhilarating to support things bigger than myself, but these past few months it hasn’t been as gratifying. It’s just a rut, I think, and probably related to that low feeling I can’t seem to shake, despite taking time off. I haven’t had time for reflection, as painful as it could be. So today,  I’m taking the red pill and embracing whatever painful reality happens.

I think it was the Michigan Writing Workshop that triggered this downward spiral.

March 25, 2017

8:32 am Heavy rain and odd amount of traffic for this time of day on a Saturday. But months of preparation are not going to deter me from attending the Michigan Writing Workshop! This was meant to be, I can feel it. I’ve sorted out my itinerary and plan on attending various workshops on how get published, including memoir writing which is the main reason I’m going. Also, I paid a little extra to pitch a publishing agent about my book. I didn’t actually practice my pitch and it’s my first time doing it but I’m sure it’ll be fine. I have an outline prepared which I went through a couple of times in my head, so that should be enough preparation. I’m ready to wing it like everything else, and I really just want to know if there’s a market for my kind of recovery story and what it takes to get published.

9:00 am Ha! Exactly on time despite the fierce rain enroute. The workshop is at a hotel I’ve been to before, so I know exactly where to go and thankfully find parking nearby. I am androgynously attired with white pinstriped shirt and black tie, late 80’s black leather jacket, patent black leather Oxfords and black jeans. I am sure my clothes lend authenticity to my claim as a writer and swagger in to the lobby.

I register then get situated. I find the two rooms I need to go to, and the location where the publishing agents will be having their one on ones with those who wish to be the next John Grisham. It turns out to be a common area between the traffic of the workshops. It is cacophonous with lots of people moving back and forth, and I wonder briefly if I will be able to speak and think in such an environment.

This session would run from 9:30am to 10:30am, after which I would have some time to kill before my first ever 10-minute pitch to a real live publishing agent at 11:50. Sweet!

My moves recorded in my prefrontal cortex for the next 2 hours, I arrive at the first workshop on memoir writing. I look around the room, observing and analyzing as is my habit. It was quite a diverse group.  I assume everyone else is doing the same thing since, you know, we’re writers and prone to such behavior.

Everyone appeared to be intelligent and as introverted as myself.  I think, well, this is a category of nerd that I’ve yet to immerse myself in. I am excited to talk, network and do the things one normally does at workshops. I get my laptop out, engage in some small talk with Susan who works at Blue Cross/Blue Shield in Detroit and sit quietly, ready for some serious learnin’.

10:30 am Well, that was definitely eye-opening. Turns out there are some things I didn’t think about as well as other things I just wasn’t aware of as far as memoirs. The presenter was very pleasant and friendly, and quite approachable if I had chosen to wait to speak to her. I let the opportunity pass, but here’s a summary of what I learned:

Be prepared to talk about your story many, many times. To agents, interviewers, talk show hosts, etc. This actually hadn’t ever occured to me. I’ve just gotten used to saying it out loud – am I really ready to talk about myself that much?

Make your story different from another recovery story. This was something to think about. I thought I would just say, “Hey, I had my head opened like a ripe melon and lookit me! I’m okay!” but I guess that’s not the most interesting or thought-provoking angle.

Figure out your platform. This refers to social media presence or any ties to organizations that your work will appeal to “How are you going to market your story and get your books sold? What’s your angle? Are you a celebrity with a built-in platform and moolah to fund the marketing push? How many Facebook friends will realistically support you after you finish your book? I thought about this. All I could think of was I was a Detroit musician, known in certain circles but not really that famous. This was not a strong platform in my mind.

Have a narrative hook. The presenter referred to it as “smile”. It should make an agent smile or respond emotionally after reading the brief description of your book.

Ok, so maybe I had a few of these things already. Nothing too insurmountable, right? On to the meeting! I check the area again where the publishing agents were located and spot him, the one who would make or break my success as a writer. He was probably in his mid to late 30’s, short dark hair, neatly trimmed beard, lean and sharp facial features. He wore his charcoal grey sport coat well and he looked every bit the elegant publishing agent.  He looked up from his phone, and seemed bored. Was he tired already of all the plucky writers, eager to gain his audience and explain why their story will be the best thing he’s heard all day?

I went off to the lounge area of the hotel to update my presentation, integrating the important bits of what I had just absorbed. No problem. I got this!

11:30 am I had double and triple-checked my meeting time. It was at 11:50 am, a mere 20 minutes from now. I was getting nervous, pacing back and forth and finding some excuse to be near that area. I got more water. I hung up my leather jacket on the big coat rack. I  read the back flaps of some books about how to get published on a nearby table. I went to the bathroom and then went to the lounge area again to post something grandiose on Facebook. The time was getting closer – 11:47 am! Maybe I would get up in a minute, saunter over there and casually walk up to his table. “Hi,” I would say, relaxed and non-chalant. I had ten minutes to explain my story and ask questions.  Ten minutes to tell a stranger how my story was special out of all the stories he’s ever heard about someone recovering from brain surgery. Ten minutes to convince a representative of a publishing company to spend money on my writing endeavors.

Gulp.

I square my shoulders, get up from my delightfully oversized chair and walk with purpose to the publishing agent tables.

11:50 am or Self Sabotage The Easy Way

Me (with forced perkiness): “Hi, Michael?” (Michael looks up, a confused look on his face. I stifle the urge to analyze and quickly continue). I’m Raquel Salaysay. You’re 11:50 appointment?”

Michael: (Bewildered and slightly irritated). “You mean my 11:40?”

I am exactly 10 minutes late. Stunned for what seems like a long, painful, time-wasting moment, I try to recover but the color is rushing to my cheeks and my forehead becomes hot and sweaty. The crowds of people nearby and their collective clamor further paralyze me into inaction. I am embarrassed and disappointed with myself and I can’t seem to say anything at all.

Michael: (Obviously seeing my discomfort) “Well, we have two minutes before we go on break. Can you tell me anything about what you’re working on?”

I decide to push through and beat myself up later. It is very hard to ignore the fight or flight symptoms. I use my visualization strategy, throwing up an image in my mind one second before I say the next thing. Eventually he loses his impatient demeanor. His face becomes kinder, asking questions and encouraging me to talk, just talk. So I do.  My answers become smoother and less puncuated with long pauses.  What is my book about? What memoir writers do I like? Why do I like them? I describe my writing style as poetic and direct, and that intrigues him. I mention Neil Gaiman, Henry Marsh, Maya Angelou as memoir writers I admire. We talk about word count, and he tells me about 80,000-90,000 words is the norm for a memoir. Well, no problem there – I had printed out my full blog and it looked very close to that range.

At the end of our short time together, he gave me his card. “I’ll remember you,”he says, memorizing my face. “You’re the one that was exactly 10 minutes late.” I thanked him for his time and exited with what I hope was dignity though I’m an emotional mess inside. How could months of planning and preparation come to this? This was supposed to be part of my destiny and I effed it up!

I attend the Self-Publishing lecture and hope that it might be less dismal but the encounter had soured my mood. Turns out this wasn’t as simple as I thought either. I felt challenged by things like finding a good editor, paying for their services, doing my own marketing, starting a blog to promote the book…etc. It all seemed daunting and overwhelming to say the least. How could I have ever wanted to write a book? Who did I think I was? Then I thought about all the books I’ve seen in book stores, unread and unloved, no one to take them home to join their private collection of favorite things to read on a rainy day. Sitting there forever until the passing of time crushes them into sand and the wind blew them into oblivion.Oh, why bother.  Why, why, WHY?? I went home dejected.  The cold weather and grey clouds only amplified my somber outlook.

As I said, I only recently managed to rid myself of this black dog of low self-esteem. But as always, I came out stronger after taking a while to think about things and my place in this crazy Universe. After months of self flagellation, comparing myself to others who seem to have accomplished so much more than me and other unhealthy behavior, I came to some satisfactory conclusions. Maybe writing a book isn’t what I need to do right now. Maybe just getting this blog started was enough, and I should continue to post and enjoy writing. When you write a book, you have to set aside some serious time every day to do it, like I did when I wanted to finish my recovery story before the first anniversary of my surgery.  I had more free time then, but now work is getting busier, and I have to be on call to take care of my mom fairly often. Music is on hiatus, which I’m oddly not that bothered about (thought that also took a while to get over). I’m tired a lot and most days I’m happy to turn my brain off the moment I get in my car and drive home from work.

And maybe my brain surgery was all just part of a bigger story, possibly a biography? I just know I shouldn’t be so hard on myself. Life happens and will continue to happen, and I will record it here. Should the Universe decide to drop events in place that this all becomes a book one day, then I’ll be ready. For the moment, I’m going to take it easy on myself and accept that this is not the time for huge mountains to conquer. Instead, I’ll consider it an opportunity to take in the vista, now fertile and sunny and quite a change from these last few months. The red pill is painful, but the changes it brings can be unexpectedly for the better.